Mistakes are a typical job interview topic. One of the more common interview questions you'll be asked related to mistakes is "Tell me about a time when you made a mistake."
Even if you know an interviewer is going to ask, it's a difficult question to answer. It's hard to come up with an answer on the fly while walking the fine line between positivity and transparency.
But here's the thing. Being open about a specific mistake you made is a great way to impress even the toughest interviewer. Given the choice, hiring managers prefer candidates who learn from past mistakes.
That's why it's important to prepare your answer to this job interview question ahead of time.
In this article, we share how to effectively answer "Tell me about a time you made a mistake", common mistakes to avoid, and provide example answers you can use as inspiration.
Why interviewers ask "Tell me about a time you made a mistake"
Hiring managers ask "Tell me about a time you made a mistake" to see how you handle stressful or challenging situations, and more importantly, what you learn from them.
Everyone makes mistakes. Being able to admit to your own and articulate what you've learned shows integrity and indicates you won't make similar mistakes going forward.
This question also helps employers understand your weaknesses and whether you have what is needed to be successful in the role.
Be honest but do your best to highlight the positive results and how you became a better employee because of the negative experience.
The key to answering this interview question is to show that you've learned from your mistake.
How to answer "Tell me about a time you made a mistake"
The key to answering "Tell me about a time you made a mistake" is to show what you've learned. We recommend using the STAR method and the following steps to create an effective answer:
1. Briefly explain the mistake
Outline your mistake and take accountability for your previous mistake. Keep it focused on work-related mistakes, and don't blame teammates, your manager, or the company. Everyone makes mistakes and it's best to own up to yours, even if there were others involved.
When picking a mistake, choose a situation where you came up with a solution or learned something. It's best to use a minor mistake like when you missed a team meeting, rather than your biggest mistake like losing a new client or screwing up multiple big sales calls.
Team mistakes can be a great choice as you can use them to highlight how you became a better team member or manager. Just remember that you need to take responsibility for your part in the error and then talk through how you worked with the team to come to a solution.
If you can, choose a real example where you struggle for a long time but turned the mistake into one of your biggest strengths.
It's also a good idea to use an example from your past experience that isn't specifically related to the job requirements of the new position.
This is the situation and task from the STAR method:
- Situation: Describe the situation you were in or the project you needed to accomplish.
- Task: What goals were you working toward?
2. Describe your actions
Once you've articulated the specific mistake, you may think your answer is finished. But this is a mistake.
Your potential employer wants you to explain what you did to resolve the issue. Make it clear how you took the initiative in the situation and learned from past experiences.
The purpose of this interview question is to see how you handle mistakes, so it's a good idea to emphasize your problem solving skills.
Get specific about how you handled it and describe the actions you took to resolve the error.
This is the action step from the STAR method:
- Action: Describe the actions you took to address the situation with an appropriate amount of detail and keep the focus on your work.
3. Emphasize the positives
Focus on the positive aspects of the situation. Show the employer you're capable of handling difficult situations where you were at fault.
Explain that in the end, everything turned out fine, or ideally, better than if you hadn't made the mistake.
4. Talk about what you learned
Finally, outline what you learned from the situation, how it made you better, and any steps you took to ensure similar mistakes wouldn't happen in the future.
Always try to emphasize the skills or qualities you gained that are important to the job you're interviewing for.
This is the most important piece of your answer, so don't skip this step.
This is the result step of the STAR method:
- Result: Describe the outcome of your actions and don’t be shy to take credit for your achievements.
Examples of best answers
Below are sample answers you can use to prepare your own response to this common job interview question. Note how most of these examples use the STAR interview response technique, describing the situation, task, action, and result to explain how they responded to and learned from a prior mistake.
Sample answer #1
"When I first became an engineering manager, I tried to do everything myself, from the day-to-day operations of the team to coding all of the core features.
I quickly learned that this wasn't realistic. I read a bunch of management books like High Output Management and learned that the best managers delegate to their team. Since then, I've focused on learning how to manage a remote team by running effective one-on-ones and staff meetings rather than coding."
Why it works: The answer demonstrates how the candidate reevaluated what their core responsibilities were after moving from individual contributor to manager. It also shows that they were able to self-teach and adjust as necessary. It's a great example of turning a mistake (inability to delegate) into a positive.
Sample answer #2
"I pride myself on trying to learn and grow from my mistakes. In my current role as a sales manager, I heard from my account executives that it was getting hard to close sales because a competitor had a much better-designed deck.
This was my fault as I am solely responsible for the presentation. I'm not naturally a visual person and prefer to read so I didn't see it as a problem. But our sales team did!
The issue is that we're a small company and don't have a dedicated designer, so I spent the last six months teaching myself how to design an effective presentation. Since then, we've been able to close more deals and my sales team is happier."
Why it works: The candidate has highlighted a specific situation where they were at fault and then shown how they were able to teach themself a new skill to ensure that their team perform better. It highlights their ability to learn and their dedication to their team.
Sample answer #3
"When I was a sales development representative, I spent far too long wasting time before asking for help. One mistake that helped me grow the most was when I wasn't hitting my sales numbers for the first time in my career.
I felt discouraged but was too embarrassed to reach out to my manager for advice. Luckily, I had a great manager who proactively reached out to me to see if there was anything wrong. He showed me that I was reaching out to prospects far less than other SDRs.
Sure enough, I followed his advice and my numbers got back on track. This showed me the importance of reaching out for help, as well as the importance of nurturing leads."
Why it works: The candidate explained their mistake then subtly redirected the conversation from their weakness to what they learned from it and how they got back on track. It shows that the candidate is able to learn from their mistakes and can communicate their value.
Tips for giving the best answer to "Tell me about a time you made a mistake"
- Use the STAR technique: The STAR method is a structured manner of responding to behavioral interview questions (also known as STAR interview questions) in job interviews by discussing the specific situation, task, action, and result of the situation you are describing.
- Know your audience: It's a good idea to go into each interview with a specific example that can be related to the job you're applying to. Before the interview, look at the job description and try to think of a mistake you've made in the past that isn't closely related to the requirements of the job, but taught you a valuable lesson.
- Don't pass the buck: We all make mistakes, do yourself a favor and own up to it. Nobody wants to work with someone who always points fingers, yet most applicants go out of their way to convince interviewers that there was nothing they could have done differently. Focus on what you learned!
- Redefine the question: Make sure you focus on what you learned from the mistake. The goal is to put a positive spin on the mistake, so you can show that you're the best candidate.
- Be honest: An honest answer about a mistake that you've made in the past will be appreciated, and will likely result in follow-up questions. Be honest during the follow-up questions too!
- Review common interview questions: Not every interview question is focused on mistakes, but there will be more follow-up questions related to you, such as: "why are you the best person for this job?" or "how do you define success?" It's also a great idea to have questions that you want to ask as well. If you need help, check out our guide on the best questions to ask in an interview.
Mistakes to avoid when answering "Tell me about a time you made a mistake"
There are many ways to answer this question, but there are common pitfalls you should be aware of before heading into your interview:
- Oversharing: You want to be honest, but don't overshare. You need to maintain or build on the credibility you have built from your resume and the result of your interview.
- Self-depreciation: Keep the tone positive rather than apologetic. Everyone makes mistakes at work. The most important thing you can do when answering this question is to demonstrate what you've learned.
- Throwing team members under the bus: It's fine to defuse the negative impact of a mistake by providing context, but don't throw your old team members under the bus. Instead, explain how you worked with them to develop new methods or techniques to avoid future mistakes.
- Dishonesty or claiming perfect: Don't try to avoid the question by claiming you haven't made a mistake. This isn't the answer any employer is looking for.
- Blaming a former company: Sometimes a particular job or company isn't right for you. It happens, but remember you don't want to focus on how much you didn't like your former boss, team, or company. Instead, focus on what you learned and would do differently in the future.
- Choosing a trivial mistake: Telling a potential employer that you had a typo in one of your emails isn't going to help you. Be sure that you choose a mistake that had real consequences. Otherwise there will be nothing you can learn from the mistake.
- Sharing damaging mistakes: Being honest is encouraged, but it's best to leave out disastrous mistakes that didn't end well. This is why it's so important to prepare for this question ahead of time.
Possible follow-up questions
- Describe your work ethic
- What is your greatest strength?
- Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
- Why do you want to work here?
- Why are you the best person for this job?
- Do you have any questions for me? Read our guide on best questions to ask in an interview.
- What can you contribute to this company? This question is similar to "Why do you want to work here?" and will only be asked as a follow-up if you weren't able to clearly articulate your value in your answer.
- Any number of behavioral interview questions. Be sure to use the STAR method when answering.
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